A Power the Dark Lord Knows Not: Ethical Love as a Critique of Western Individualism in Harry Potter

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A Power the Dark Lord Knows Not: Ethical Love as a Critique of Western Individualism in Harry Potter
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Annual UF Undergraduate Research Symposium
Stephens, Kelly
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Children's Literature
young adult literature
the other
Harry Potter
ethical love
Fantasy literature ( fast )
school story
Children's literature ( fast )
Young adult works ( fast )


Although children’s literature is generally considered apolitical in nature, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series clearly offers a socio-political critique of Western notions of rugged individualism. A comparative character analysis of the series’ eponymous hero, Harry, and his nemesis, Voldemort, shows that Rowling’s books warn against the dangers of extreme individualism and power, instead upholding a vision of goodness rooted in a recognition of one’s relation to the other that demands ethical action and condones community over isolation. Such a vision, I argue, is rooted in ethical love, which I define not as the sentimental phenomenon, but rather as the ability to accept one’s vulnerability, dependency, and responsibility to the other. Considering the Harry Potter series’ global reach, its offering of an ethical system based on community and understanding has particular significance as people learn how to ethically navigate a globalizing world.
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Ethical Love: A Critique of Western Individualism in Harry Potter Kelly Stephens, Advisor: Dr. Anastasia Ulanowicz Department of English, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL Conclusions Selected References 1. Butler Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself New York: Fordham University Press 2005. Print 2. Dunham, Charlotte Chorn Julie Harms Cannon, and Bernadette Dietz. "Representing the Other in Sociology of the Family Texts." Teaching Sociology 32.4 (2004): 374 84. JSTOR Web. 21 Apr. 2013. 3. Eccleshare, Julia. A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels London: Continuum, 2002. Print. 4. Hoffmann, Katie, and Josh Fineman Harry Potter U.S Sales Set Record, Scholastic Says (Update 4)." Bloomberg, 23 July 2007. Web. 16 June 2013. 5. Kornfeld John, and Laurie Prothro "Comedy, Quest, and Community: Home and Family in Harry Potter ." Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter Ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2009. 121 37. Print. 6. Le Guin Ursula K., and Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. Print. 7. Rowling, JK. The Women of Harry Potter. YouTube 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 June 2013. Introduction nature, my research seeks to challenge this notion by examining how J.K. Harry Potter series offers a socio political critique of Western notions of rugged individualism. By conducting a comparative character analysis of the Harry Potter books warn against the dangers of extreme individualism and power and instead uphold a vision of ethical goodness rooted in a recognition of community over isolation. Such a vision, I further argue, is rooted in ethical love, which I define not as the sentimental phenomenon, but rather as the ability to Considering the Harry Potter view based on collective action, communication, and understanding has particular significance as people learn how to ethically navigate a globalizing world in the 21 st century Method Using a combination of Socio ethical theory Genre theory Late 20 th century/early 21 st century socio historical context Author interviews Literary analysis A close reading of the Harry Potter books themselves I conducted a comparative character analysis of Harry and Voldemort to determine the role of ethical love and power within the Harry Potter books, and how their respective journeys offer a criticism of rugged individualism in Western culture. Some of the themes I examine: The role of ethical love in early infancy, and its effects on psychological/social development violence the humanity within the other and then take ethical action rather than condemn or deny his relation to the other The portrayal of collective action vs. rugged individualism Future Work Disclaimer: The background image I used is the promotional poster for the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 movie, and is owned by Warner Bros. Studios. power. Rather than uplift the narrative of the rugged individual, J.K. Rowling instead proposes a hero who works within a larger collective. By embracing his vulnerability to and reliance upon others, Harry learns to understand the that will ensure life and community. In a 21 st story about confronting and understanding the other is crucial, as it encourages readers, both young and old, to not violently condemn those that are different, but rather seek to understand them. I am expanding my research on this topic in my English Honors Thesis, where I of the ethical good. Drawing on theory by Charles Taylor, Carl Jung, and Ursula Le Guin I will argue that Harry and Voldemort come to represent two competing hyper goods in British culture: power and community. In order to renegotiate these hyper goods and frameworks, I will propose that Harry must first the darker sides of humanity. Only after understanding the shadow other can Harry complete his ethical journey, defeat Voldemort, and help rebuild his community.


Stephens 1 A Power the Dark Lord Knows Not: Ethical Love as a Critique of Western Individualism in Harry Potter series about a young wizard named Harry staking its claim in 21 st century culture as it shattered book sale records, inspired an international movie franchise, and swamped seller lists alike (Hoffman and Fineman). The Harry Potter his progression from a powerless child to an able adult who finds a niche within his community However, althou gh Rowling's series draws on archetypes that suggest a universal appeal, they are far from apolitical: indeed, they grapple with the socio ethical and ideological conflicts that were prevalent at the time of their publication. Written during the 1990s and and self with: British culture, specifically, and Western c ulture, more generally (Eccleshare 106). In fact, the Harry Potter series is a trenchant socio rugged individualism, which suggest that the individual is all important, self sufficient, and invulnerable. Rather than reaffirm such a narrative, Rowling instead warns against it through her nemesis, Lord Voldemort, who represents the ultimate dark vision of rugged individualism: violent, unregulated power. If Voldemort is an express ion of the dangers of extreme individualism, however, Harry represents an alternative path: ethical love. In fact, it to accept his relation with and vulnerability to the other that sets him apart from Voldemort, and ultimatel y enables Harry to understand him, defeat him, and help


Stephens 2 community ov er isolation, as well as love and trust over power and fear. For the purpose of my analysis, it is crucial to understand my definition of the term ethical theory. Here, I define love not as the sentimental phenomenon, but rather as an ethical way of understanding the self. As the socio ethical theorist From early infancy on, one forms a sense of identity in relation to the defined as all people that the self perceives sense of self. Just as we are vulnerable to the other, however, the other is also vulnerable to us; such mutual vulnerability thus calls on both parties to respond ethically and affirm ties rather than destroy them through violence. In fact, according to Butler, other and the responsibility that comes with this dependency and vulnerability is to deny (103). To u


Stephens 3 dependency, and responsibility to the other is a form of ethical love that ultimately affirms humanity, life, and community. The significance of ethical love is established early on in the Harry Potter series with Lily refuses to stand aside when Voldemort orders her to so he can kill her son. Instead, she shields Harry and begs Vo ldemort to kill her instead. Her resulting death which reaffirms her strong maternal connection with her son ( Order of the Phoenix [OP] 835 an other is an example of the sociality of both humanity and magic, for human relations and ut rather Voldemort, who does not understand love, cannot overcome the ancient magical shield that it creates ( Prisoner of Azkaban [PoA] 427) er and mentor, Dumbledore, tells him in for Harry resides in his blood an ethical love that Voldemort, who rejects his human connection and vulnerability to others, Half Blood Prince [HBP] 511, SS 299). ethical and emotional death. Since Harry is raised


Stephens 4 hated and neglected it would have been As Dumbledore notes, however, thi OP 835). Rowling stated in an interview that this is largely due to the love Harry receives f Women). tigated by his Women) other despite his neglect becomes his greatest strength HBP 511). In fact, throughout the series Harry remains lightest desire to become one of HBP 511). Unlike Voldemort, Harry rejects the path to extreme individualism and its illusions of power and invulnerability. Rather than try to hide or destroy his vulnerabilities, he accepts them a nd realizes that his connection with others makes him stronger. He is willing to ask others for help be they wizard, house elf, or other magical creature terror. To cr eate such a network, Harry refuses to promote himself as a lone Western hero. his human fear and vulnerability in the face of obstacles and his connection with others, remarking that a ll of his


Stephens 5 OP 343). By fashioning himself in opposition to traditional notions of Western individualism, Harry emphasizes collec tive action over individual narrative, creating a community that is bound not by fear of his special powers, but by a bond of against Voldemort. Harry thus proves tha t he does not want to be special and invulnerable, as Voldemort does; rather, he wants to be part of a community. He is not outside the community as a vague figure of hope the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One as much as he is a human boy who is just as depen and his ability to embrace his relation to the other to ethically love therefore pushes back Harry Potter, lov e is a strength, and it is the key to creating a community that can defeat Voldemort where an individual cannot. Wizarding community. He does not take this journey alone. Alth ough he comes from a neglectful home, Harry chooses to reach out to others and create his own family, one which the Order of the Phoenix especially his godfather S OP the other when the Hogwarts gamekeeper, Hagrid, reveals his magical heritage to him on his eleventh birthday. Rather th befriends the gamekeeper, asks him questions that reveal his ignorance and vulnerability, and allows him to guide his first steps into the Wizarding world. Even when Harry crosses the thre shold into the magical world and adolescence, symbolized by Platform 9, he does not go


Stephens 6 alone. Instead, he reaches out to the Weasley family for help when he is vulnerable and confused about how to get onto the platform. The Weasley family then continues to play a major role in knit Weasley sweaters, and even gives the twins his Triwizard Cup winnings to start up their joke shop. Harry effectively becomes a part of the family, and is consid OP figures in the forms of Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore, and Remus Lupin pass into and out of his life (Eccleshare 95). their ability to genuinely accept those who are different from them, whether they are Muggle, werewolf, or lonely boy remains a m ajor While Harry is primed by his parents and the Weasley family to forge relations to the birth, ( Women ). Unlike Harry, Voldemort was born out of a loveless union the product of a love potion and grew up in an orphanage without any of the foundational eth ical love that shielded HBP baby Tom Riddle Jr. be yond the name of the Muggle who had rejected her, Merope allows


Stephens 7 herself to die and abandon her son without any shield against the damaging effects of growing up in an institution. Drawing on her work with Lumos, her charity which helps institutionalized children in Women). Brain scans reveal that once Women) In other words, without any positive fundamental connection with the other as an infant, Voldemort is hence unable to form bility to feel empathy with others and make human SS 299). Thus, whereas Harry seeks out community, Voldemort craves to be special and apart, HBP 363, Chamber of Secrets [CoS] 314). Rejected by both parents, Voldemort becom es obsessed with power and its illusion of invulnerability; he craves to shed his CoS 314). In isolating himself in such a way, however, Voldemort never develops an ethi cal compass; he focuses solely on erasing his human vulnerabilities and annihilating the threatening other. By attempting to make himself self sufficient and all powerful, he slowly destroys his soul. As tuted in relationality: implicated, beholden, escape our connection with others, for they are a fundamental part of ourselves; we define ourselves against them, w


Stephens 8 to be the isolated, all knowing individual, beyond vulnerability and death. To be this is to be inhuman, Deathly Hollows (DH) without ethical love: inhumanity. He becomes a shadow of humanity: a small, r DH 706 7). nstincts for cruelty, secrecy, HBP 77); he preferred to act alone. Unlike Harry, who first enters for my Half Blood Prince this desire to operate alone follows Voldemort into his school years, when he collects a the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish 2). Indeed, even as an adult surrounded by his Death Eaters, particularly symbolized in the shedding of his name, Tom, which marked both his human relations with others particularly the Mug gle father who abandoned him and his human


Stephens 9 HBP 277). He thus became Lord Voldemort, a name that almost everyone in the Wizarding world would fea r to speak. In denying his relation to the other, Voldemort becomes an extreme example of Western individualism; he works alone and craves power above all else. Time and again Voldemort seeks power that will set him apart and transform himself into somet hing beyond human and, ultimately, beyond death, his greatest fear. He follows this pursuit no matter the cost, with no encapsulate part of it, and tether his sp irit to the earth in a twisted immortality ( HBP 511). when ethical love is absent and power becomes an obsession. Having never truly fostered a human relations hip, he is not part of the Wizarding community; rather, he is a constant threat on its outskirts, tempting those who are power hungry from within. He is manipulative, cruel, and evil, the ultimate other that one wants to condemn rather than understand, fo r to understand Voldemort to name him would be to admit a relation to him. But this is what Harry must do in order to defeat him. He must first understand Voldemort his human beginnings, his ways of thinking, his descent into the inhuman if he is to find HBP 508). By shaping erstand our relation to the other, even if it makes us vulnerable, even if we fear what we find. To do otherwise would a human possibility. Indeed, as Urs


Stephens 10 we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over and over, and admit, implicated in evil; it is not an outside problem that bears no responsibility, but rather a result of the many injustices and suffering for which humanity as a whole is accountable. Voldemort was not born evil; he is a product of both his natural tendencies and his upbringing. Humanity is therefore implicated in his actions, but fearing to speak his name to acknowledge his humanity will not change that. Thus, in order to take ethical action, we must reme mber that we the range of human possibility that exists, even to prep are ourselves for or against such come about in order to address them et hically and ensure that we do not create those preconditions again. To arrest this cycle of condemnation and violence is the reason why Harry must learn learn as well : to understand how such an evil can come about, and how to ensure it does not by power. He can HBP 511). His ability to love is also what spurs him to pursue Voldemort in the Voldemort, even when bringing about his end means realizing the ultimate relation between


Stephens 11 soul inside of him, courtesy of the curse that failed to kill him as a child. Faced with the horror of such evil inside him and by extent, his own possibility of following such a path Harry faces this relation with the other and sacrifices himself to end the cycle of isolat ion and power, thereby protecting his loved ones and solidifying his transformation from a lonely orphan boy to for him. over Voldemort is a critique of the idolized effectively warns again st the lure of power and extreme individualism and instead offers up a new ideal that fits with a 21 st century globalizing world, where we must constantly confront the other who highlights our vulnerabilities and challenges our definition of what it is to be human. Indeed, Rowling encourages communication over isolation, understanding over condemnation, collective action over individual power. Perhaps most importantly of all, she reminds her readers, young and old, of the importance of ethical love, which alone can combat the destructive desire for power and ensure life in the face of death.


Stephens 12 Works Cited Bulter, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Print. Dunham, Charlotte Chorn, Julie Harms Cannon, and Bernadette Dietz. "Representing the Other in Sociology of the Family Texts." Teaching Sociology 32.4 (2004): 374 84. JSTOR Web. 21 Apr. 2013. Eccleshare, Julia. A Guide to the Harry Potter Novels London: Continuum, 2002. Print. Hoffmann, Katie, and Jos h Fineman. Harry Potter U.S. Sales Set Record, Scholastic Says (Update 4)." Bloomberg, 23 July 2007. Web. 16 June 2013. Le Guin, Ursula K., and Susan Wood. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Yo rk : HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. Print. Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets New York: Scholastic, 1998. Print. --. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print. --. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince New York: Scholastic, 2005. Print. --. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix New York: Scholastic, 2003. Print. --. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print. --. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone New York: Schol astic, 1997. Print. --. The Women of Harry Potter. YouTube 19 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 June 2013.

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